Misreading the Bengal Delta
Climate Change, Development, and Livelihoods in Coastal Bangladesh
- PUBLISHED: March 2022
- SUBJECT LISTING: Anthropology, Asian Studies / South Asia, Environmental Studies
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 254 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 12 b&w illus., 2 maps, 2 tables
- SERIES: Culture, Place, and Nature
- ISBN: 9780295749600
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
Perilously close to sea level and vulnerable to floods, erosion, and cyclones, Bangladesh is one of the top recipients of development aid earmarked for climate change adaptation. Yet to what extent do adaptation projects address local needs and concerns? Combining environmental history and ethnographic fieldwork with development professionals, rural farmers, and landless women, Misreading the Bengal Delta critiques development narratives of Bangladesh as a "climate change victim." It examines how development actors repackage colonial-era modernizing projects, which have caused severe environmental effects, as climate-adaptation solutions. Seawalls meant to mitigate against cyclones and rising sea levels instead silt up waterways and induce drainage-related flooding. Other adaptation projects, from saline aquaculture to high-yield agriculture, threaten soil fertility, biodiversity, and livelihoods. Bangladesh’s environmental crisis goes beyond climate change, extending to coastal vulnerabilities that are entwined with underemployment, debt, and the lack of universal healthcare.
This timely book analyzes how development actors create flawed causal narratives linking their interventions in the environment and society of the Global South to climate change. Ultimately, such misreadings risk exacerbating climatic threats and structural inequalities.
Misreading the Bengal Delta is available in an open access edition through the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, thanks to the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Open access edition: DOI 10.6069/9780295749624
Authors & Contributors
Camelia Dewan is postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.
[A] methodologically innovative and rigorous work...The clarity the book offers in identifying the problems around the multiple framings of climate change makes it essential reading for scholars, development practitioners, government policymakers, and general readers interested in climate change and development, Bangladesh, or both.- H-Environment
Accessible and eloquently written...[Dewan] convincingly shows that coherent policy ideas around climate change adaptation first and foremost tend to reflect the viewpoints and interests of policy actors themselves rather than those of the envisioned beneficiaries.- Journal of Peasant Studies
A superb decolonial ethnography...Misreading the Bengal Delta is essential reading for anyone who wishes to think critically about climate change and its local effects, about the modes through which it is made legible, and about how superficial reading may be avoided through deep decolonial, historical, and ethnographic exegeses.- Stefan Helmreich, American Anthropologist
Camelia Dewan brilliantly illustrates how narratives of improvement have acted as metacodes from colonial time to modern day Bangladesh.- Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography
Uniquely, this work focuses on a variety of ‘development brokers’ beyond the ubiquitous English-speaking Western development professionals. Through this focus on brokerage in the development-climate nexus, Dewan highlights the problematic power relations currently deciding climate knowledge production and, through it, advising adaptation projects which ‘misread’ the delta.- South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies
[Dewan] unveils a perspective on the Bengal delta that is both very intriguing and insightful.- Water Alternatives Book Review
Dewan’s account is a rich and nuanced portrayal of how climate change and development practitioners translate climate change into practice, and the effects that these translations have on local communities...A brilliant and urgent ethnography.- Anthropology Book Review
Dewan’s book is a timely and well-critiqued ethnography of how development projects targeting to adapt to the impact of climate change can become maladaptation because of the missing local context.- Society and Culture in South Asia
Finding echoes across the global South, Dewan’s brilliant, urgent book shows us what we miss when we treat climate change as a problem in isolation. Based on deep ethnographic research, this work of rigorous analysis and great moral clarity demonstrates that climate change is among a cluster of ecological and livelihood risks faced by the most vulnerable communities.- Sunil Amrith, author of Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas have Shaped Asia's History
This magisterial work shows how the problems of coastal Bangladesh go far beyond the "climate reductive translations" that currently dominate policy readings, and reveals far murkier waters shaped by a political ecology of extraction that they obscure.- James Fairhead, University of Sussex
Dewan explores, through meticulous and well-written ethnography, how the idea of climate change shapes the direction of development projects and interventions.- Annu Jalais, author of The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration
An important contribution to an emerging critical literature on climate change in Bangladesh and beyond.- Jason Cons, author of Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border
Camelia Dewan offers a vitally important corrective to simplistic narratives of global warming.... This book was eye-opening for me: it joins a growing body of research that suggests that ‘climate change,’ when used as a catch-all explanation, can obscure the historical and geo-political roots of many environmental problems.... The exact balance between atmospheric and other anthropogenic impacts is not easy to ascertain but it is vital to try, which is why the humanities are so crucial for our understanding of the planetary crisis.- Amitav Ghosh, author of Gun Island
In this ethnographically rich and empirically rigorous book, Dr. Dewan shows her reader how differently situated people understand, experience, and act with regard to cyclones, flooding, coastal erosion, and sea level rise. More than that even, she shows us whose ideas about social and ecological futures are accorded power and whose are not. This is a must read for all of us working on climate change, decolonial methodology, and political ecology.- Paige West, Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College and Columbia University
One of Dewan's most important achievements consists in showing how local knowledge is more relevant and flexible in dealing with climate change than the technocratic solutions proposed by government and NGOs. Students of development and anthropology, South Asia and climate change need this book, but so do policymakers at every level. Highly recommended!- Thomas Hylland Eriksen, author of Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change
This important book crashes through the pieties of climate change discourse to show how colonial and profit-making infrastructure causes disastrous flooding and the salinization of agricultural soil. Insightful and carefully researched, Misreading the Bengal Delta is a major contribution to the emerging field of political geomorphology.- Anna Tsing, co-author of Field Guide to the Patchy Anthropocene: The New Nature